I had a double treat this week. Every so often Durham Wildlife Trust rewards its volunteers with free training days. It’s the start of the fungi season, and so two different fungal forays were arranged.
I booked to go on the Sunday foray (I do have to work, you know). Hosted by the Rainton Meadows crew, it was a chance to learn something new and snoop on the ‘competition’ (I jest of course; there is no question that Low Barns is better).
We were treated to a whole day with expert Gordon Simpson. At 80 years old, there is nothing he doesn’t know about the natural world. He had laid out a table covered in locally sourced fungi and I found myself assisting him by looking up the common names for some of the specimens. He knew all the latin names off by heart of course.
Gordon started his talk by declaring “all fungi are edible, but some of them you only get to eat once”. Everyone got the joke, thankfully. Instead of using slides, he illustrated his talk by simply passing round his specimens for us to handle. Hands on is definitely the best way to learn.
In the afternoon we took the DWT minibus to Hawthorn Dene, a beautiful steep-sided woodland valley that empties onto the sea about two miles south of Seaham. Despite the wet summer, the dene was surprisingly dry, and large fungi were few and far between. Gordon’s fascination with the ‘smaller’ fungi – moulds and smuts – had us hunting for marks on tree leaves and grass stems. We learnt there is even a fungus that infects red campion and turns the white ring in the middle of the flower a dark reddy brown.
We did find some large bracket fungi. Called Artist’s Bracket, it infects living trees, and several tall beeches hosted the fruiting bodies. The trees are dying, but may still be able to outlive all of us.
There were still spaces on the weekday course at Low Barns, so I decided to book the day off work for more fungal fun. Yesterday our host was Patrick Harding. I didn’t realise until I got to Low Barns that I already own two of Patrick’s books. As he had brought some of his books to sell, now I own three.
While Gordon is the Grand Old Grandfather, Patrick is the Funky Uncle. During the morning session he had us in stitches with his stories and anecdotes. Humour is a great learning tool, and I won’t be forgetting ‘decurrent’ in a hurry (“the Xmas cake has de currants in it – get it?”). Decurrent gills are gills that run down the stem; ‘decurrent’ is latin for ‘running down’ – see, I was listening Patrick.
We spent the afternoon trawling the Low Barns reserve for fungi. Every so often we’d hear a loud cry of ‘OWW!” from Patrick when he’d found or been given an interesting specimen. Highlights of the afternoon included a fungus that infects flies and causes them to die on grass stems with their wings outstretched (sorry, no photos – wrong camera), green elfcup, a tiny vivid green fungi growing on rotten wood, and coral spot, a bright orange or dark red fungi growing on the stacked wood by the charcoal kilns.
Two very different, but equally fascinating days. I can’t wait to check out my new local patch, and this time I’ll pay just as much attention to the little fellas as the tasty big ones. Links below are to the Durham Wildlife Trust volunteer pages.